A Facebook fundraiser that went viral and has raised more than $20 million to help reunite immigrant families separated at the southern border was started by a couple of Bowdoin College graduates who have strong ties to Maine.

Charlotte and Dave Willner, both 34, met as freshman residents of Hyde Hall on the Brunswick campus and were married in the college chapel in 2009. Now, they live and work in Silicon Valley, in northern California, far from the border crossings where children have been systematically separated from their asylum-seeking parents in recent weeks.

The Willners were compelled to act when they saw the widely circulated photo of a 2-year-old Honduran girl in a pink shirt and sneakers screaming as her mother is patted down by a border patrol agent. The Willners had just returned from their first vacation away from their own 2-year-old daughter and were basking in the glow of being with her again.

“The little girl in the photo looked just like our daughter when she’s upset,” Charlotte Willner said in a phone interview. “Suddenly, what’s happening down there felt very close to home. These kids are just like our kids. What are we doing?”

The couple, who previously worked for Facebook, decided to start a Facebook fundraiser for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, the largest immigration legal services provider in Texas.

The Willners posted the fundraiser Saturday morning, June 16, with a goal to raise $1,500, the minimum amount needed to bail someone out of detention. The goal was modest. The title of the Facebook page was simple: “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child.”

The response was overwhelming. Within three days, they had raised $2 million. At one point, the fundraiser was pulling in $10,000 every minute. Soon it had demolished records set by other Facebook fundraisers.

When the total hit $15 million, the Willners raised the goal to $20 million. Now, after receiving more than $20.4 million in donations from more than 531,000 people, the target is $25 million.

“We thought $1,500 was a lot of money,” Charlotte Willner said. “We have no idea if $25 million is a realistic goal, but we’re going for it.”

‘JUST REALLY NICE PEOPLE’

Charlotte Willner grew up in Menlo Park, California, where the family lives, and Dave Willner grew up in Brooklyn, New York. She’s head of trust and safety at Pinterest, and he oversees community policy at Airbnb.

They graduated from Bowdoin in 2006; he has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and archaeology; her degree is in English and art history. They are active alumni members and return often to Maine, including for their 10th class reunion in 2016.

“We love Maine,” Dave Willner said. “It’s a gorgeous place and there’s a kindness that’s common to Maine people.”

Neither was a social or political activist in college, nor in the years since. Still, a former professor at Bowdoin wasn’t surprised to see the RAICES fundraiser posted on the couple’s Facebook pages.

“They’re just really nice people who are generally engaged in what’s going on in the world,” said Scott MacEachern, an anthropology professor who had both Willners in archaeology classes.

MacEachern has remained friends with the couple and attended their wedding, including the reception at Frontier Restaurant in Brunswick. He made a donation to the RAICES fundraiser when the total was around $50,000, prompted by his own concerns about anti-immigrant policies and his confidence in the Willners’ support for the Texas nonprofit.

“They’re both trustworthy people and I know they’ve done their homework,” MacEachern said. “It was fun seeing their astonishment as the fundraiser went viral.”

Donations average about $38 each and have come from every state and 30 other countries, Dave Willner said. The donors represent a variety of ethnic, religious and political persuasions, unified in their opposition to separating families. Republicans in Charlotte Willner’s family have donated along with Democrats from Dave Willner’s family.

“We’ve seen a lot of people coming off the sidelines,” Charlotte Willner said. “I think some hearts are changing on this issue.”

Some donors have posted their sentiments on the Facebook fundraiser page.

“I donated,” wrote Lauren Smith of Rochester, Michigan. “What is happening is unconscionable and unAmerican.”

‘PEOPLE CARE ABOUT CHILDREN’

Contributions to the RAICES fundraiser have far exceeded the $7 million in revenues that the nonprofit reported in 2016. The outpouring of support prompted a Facebook post that gushes with gratitude.

“We do not have the words to thank Charlotte and Dave Willner,” the RAICES post says. “Thanks is inadequate for the work these funds will make possible. We know it will change lives. We know it will save lives by keeping people from being deported to unsafe countries.”

The skyrocketing total inspired tears among the organization’s 130 staff members, most of them lawyers.

“This is such a profound rejection of the cruel policies of this administration,” the post says. “Take heart. There are terrible things happening in the world. And there are many people who are deciding not to look away but to do something. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Maine Political Report



RAICES is expected to use the money to hire more staff, cover clients’ court fees and other costs, reunite families and work to resolve problems in the immigration system, the Willners said.

Donations didn’t stop when the president issued an executive order June 20 to halt the separation of children from their parents. That’s good, the Willners said, because the need is still overwhelming as parents try to find their children and deal with a fractured immigration system. Moreover, the Trump administration recently eliminated funding that provided some legal assistance to detained migrant children.

But, while the money is important, the Willners said the attention generated by the viral fundraiser has been equally impressive, especially in attracting more than 1,600 volunteers.

“It has focused attention on a place to help, and that has been very satisfying,” Dave Willner said. “It turns out a lot of people care about children. You can think whatever you want about immigration, but none of it is the fault of a 4-year-old.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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Twitter: KelleyBouchard